The Philippine government has said it will not allow U.S. troops to take part in combat operations against Muslim separatists in the Southern Philippines. The Philippine defense secretary is preparing to leave for Washington to discuss military cooperation.
The Philippine Government says it would reject any request from Washington to allow U.S. troops to take direct combat roles in fighting the Philippine Muslim separatist group, Abu Sayyaf.
The clarification came in response to public and media criticism over a report from Washington, saying American troops would be fighting alongside their Philippine counterparts against the Muslim rebels. Washington says Abu Sayyaf is linked to the al-Qaida terror network.
Pentagon officials announced last week that more than 1,700 U.S. soldiers, including 350 special-forces troops, would be sent to Jolo Island for exercises with Philippine forces. But this time Pentagon officials were quoted as saying Americans would engage in offensive operations as well as counter-terrorism training.
At first, Philippine officials refused to deny that Americans would be involved in combat, prompting on outcry from politicians and the news media.
Now, President Gloria Arroyo's spokesman, Ignacio Bunye, has told a radio interviewer that American troops would stick to training.
It is clear that the final details have yet to be worked out. As Mr. Bunye spoke, Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes was preparing to leave for Washington to discuss the program with U.S. officials.
Mr. Bunye said U.S. troops would not be allowed to violate the Philippine constitution, which bars combat on Philippine soil by foreign soldiers.
But the United States and the Philippines have a visiting forces agreement signed in 1998, which opened the way for a resumption of large-scale training exercises.
U.S. troops have begun a new 10 month counter-terrorism training program for Philippine soliders near the southern town of Zamboanga. This training program is separate from the planned operation on Jolo.
The controversy is a repeat of the debate that arose last year, when a similar six month counter-terrorism training exercise on Basilan Island, near Jolo Island, took place. No Americans took part in combat then.
The Abu Sayyaf rebels have earned a reputation as brutal kidnappers and killers, which dates back to early 2000 when they took hostage more than 20 Western tourists and Asian workers from a resort in neighboring Malaysia. The group has killed several Philippine citizens and two Americans.